Tag Archives: David Gordon Green

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild was the hit of Sundance 2012, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended a press screening of it a few months back. I’d heard it compared to the Southern Gothic abstractions of pre-sellout David Gordon Green, or even the dreamy lyricism of Terrence Malick. Perhaps my expectations were too high, however, because Beasts did not connect with me at all.

I’ll say this for the film: it’s definitely unique; certainly visionary. Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut is set in a magic-realist environment somewhere between post-Katrina New Orleans and Where the Wild Things Are, and it features a memorable central character in Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl trying to survive some sort of melting icecaps apocalypse in a town called Bathtub, with her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry).

But while Beasts succeeds at immersing the audience in a curious, evocative American world–a kind of mishmash between the rundown Americana of Green’s George Washington, the river adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and (cringe) Kevin Costner’s Water World–the film fails to tie its abundance of motifs, allusions, and themes together in a coherent, compelling story.

There are too many ideas going on in this film, and most of them feel dropped in haphazardly. There are notions of global warming hinted at, references to levees and the race/class frictions churned up by Katrina, jabs at bureaucracy and welfare, and all manner of unintelligible voiceover philosophizing (again, hat tip Malick and D.G. Green) like “When all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” Then there are the “we’re all just beasts!” themes that riff on Darwin and make commentary on the survival instincts which bind man and animal. Does any of it make sense? Is it meant to? Probably not.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film’s sense of reality is intentionally ambiguous: We know the narrative is in some sense from Hushpuppy’s point of view, but it’s unclear whether some or all of it is in her imagination. Which may very well be the point. But regardless, it comes across more as a frustrating mess than a “just enjoy the ride” impressionistic tone poem (which I think it aspires to be).

I loved the world of this film, and the photography and (sometimes) the music. The first ten minutes or so are really superb. And I’ll be darned if Hushpuppy isn’t the most adorably precocious, pint-sized heroine since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.

But as the film goes on it feels more and more contrived, with emotional highs and lows that the film doesn’t earn and  audiences shouldn’t be expected to be moved by. In the end, the film’s utopian, dream-like celebration of Southern culture and a sort of “it takes a village” communitarianism rings somewhat false. Sure, it may be Zeitlin’s goal to offer audiences a hopeful, idealistic vision in the midset of cynical times; but hopeful visions only work if they feel authentic. In the case of Beasts, I agree with Slate critic Dana Stevens that “Zeitlin’s adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers’ chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco.”

Fans of the film may disagree and say I’m reading too much into Beasts–that it’s a film not to be understood but to be experienced. And indeed, I suspect that Zeitlin had an “experience” film in mind here. But I’ve seen (and loved) far more abstract “experience” films about childhood (George WashingtonParanoid Park, Ratcatcher, to name a few) than this, and they worked for me. I think that’s because the most successful “experience” films have as much restraint as they have experimental vision. They don’t try to overstuff the film with ideas, but rather focus on perfecting the tone and letting beautiful sequences and aesthetic brushstrokes lead the way in the creation of a mood.

The problem with Beasts is that it raises too many distracting questions in the viewer’s mind to allow them to be fully present in the experience. The aesthetics are great but not great enough to pull us out of our cognitive impulses to understand what is happening and why. And ultimately, the world is too foreign and whimsical to relate to anyway. Unless you surved Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward by living in a treehouse trailer. But even then I bet Beasts feels forced.

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Snow Angels

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If there is one word that describes David Gordon Green’s new film, Snow Angels, it is challenging. If there are five words, they are “challenging in a good way.”

The same words could be used to describe any of Green’s films, which have been consistently complex, beautiful, and multilayered. If you have not seen his stunning first feature, 2000’s George Washington (made for a paltry 40k), or 2003’s lush All the Real Girls, you should definitely check them out. His gorgeously gothic third film, Undertow (which was produced and co-written by Green’s inspiration Terrence Malick), is also a must-see.

Green’s fourth film and first adaptation (based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan), Angels is an ensemble drama about a chain of shattering events in one wintry Pennsylvania town. Like Green’s other films, Angels focuses on the complexities of interpersonal, familial, and intergenerational relationships. The film centers upon Annie and Glenn (Kate Beckinsdale and Sam Rockwell), a recently separated couple with a young daughter and a lot of issues to work out. Annie is having an affair with a man (Nicky Katt) who is married to her closest friend and coworker (Amy Sedaris). Glenn—an unstable, unemployed loser who has recently turned firebrand evangelical Christian—refuses to let Annie go, and a series of poor choices by all parties results in tragic consequences. On the lighter side, the second major relationship of the film is a budding high school romance between band-nerd Arthur (Michael Angarano) and new-girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Arthur’s parents are divorcing and his friend (and former babysitter) Annie is suffering, but his innocent and awkward relationship with Lila gives an otherwise cold film a hearty, curiously nostalgic warmth.

Snow Angels (opening March 14 in NY and LA) divided audiences at Sundance last year, and it’s easy to see why. This is not an easy film. I have seen David Gordon Green speak about his films on several occasions (and I met him in person three years ago), and he always reiterates that his goal in filmmaking is to “do things differently” than conventional Hollywood. He eschews the traditional three-act structure, preferring a “two-halves” form, and privileges moments over coherent narrative. He foregrounds odd little character moments and curious visual details not to service the plot but rather to add texture and color to his extremely unique, realist/phenomenological cinematic aesthetic.

Photographed by Green’s film school comrade Tim Orr, Angels beautifully captures the slightly-antiquated, worn-down material and heavily naturalistic settings that have come to define his films. The film’s post-rock instrumental music (including songs from Mono, Uno Dose, Silver Mt. Zion and a new track from Explosions in the Sky) further enhances the organic, ethereal mood. It’s an intensely artistic film, juxtaposing easy-listening poetry with brazen, balls-out subject matter that will leave unsuspecting viewers utterly confused.

Typically, Green’s films are most challenging on the tonal level, and this is where audiences and critics have been divided about Angels. “I like movies that challenge me tonally,” said Green at a recent screening of George Washington. And Angels is certainly one such film. At times it feels like a dark comedy, at others a tragedy. Frequently it is beautifully mellow, but there are several scenes of terrible intensity. Green loves to jump back and forth from humor to tragedy, sometimes within the same scene. There is a striking scene in which Sam Rockwell’s character is heartbroken and impossibly drunk at a dingy rural bar. It is desperately sad, until he starts slow-dancing with some equally blitzed drunks to a Gene Autry song. All of a sudden it is funny, and odd, and tragic—all at the same time. And it’s not just quirkiness for the sake of irony. It works. You never know what kind of wonderful and compelling nuggets Green will throw at you next, which is a rare and wonderful trait in a director.

I am purposefully avoiding a discussion of what actually happens in this film, because the joy of watching it is that it is totally unpredictable—even shocking. It’s a film that asks deep questions about morality and collective responsibility, offering little in the way of justice or blame. It’s a film that shows the small joys and heartbreaks of life in all their symbiotic simultaneity. It’s a wonderfully unsteady, untidy experience that will mess with the tidy filmgoer. But sometimes we need to be messed with.